“WELCOME to Aleppo, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where we have been praying for Easter.” The Revd Ibrahim Nseir greeted us with a huge smile and open arms, before taking his place among the congregation gathered outside in the warm spring sunshine to watch the Scouts’ brass band play the Syrian national anthem.
Although Easter was a joyous occasion, the Christian community in Syria is a shadow of what it once was. “Things have changed totally for us,” Mr Nseir said. “The war and the economical situation forced many people to flee. Our community has decreased a lot in the last four years, and only around 35 per cent of the original Protestant community remains.”
Among the congregation were Joul, a soldier and Scout leader, who had taken a few hours off from fighting on one of Syria’s many front lines to celebrate Easter, and worshippers who had fled from nearby rebel-occupied towns. “The people who took over our town, and who shelled the churches in Aleppo, are all terrorists who want to destroy Syria and kick out all Christians,” Ebtihaj Ziadeh, one of many thousands of internally displaced people, said. “But we have stayed. We will continue to stay, and we will defend our land for ever.”
Easter was celebrated at the newly built Protestant church, which opened for worship on Christmas Day last year. The former church was beside the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which became a front line in clashes between government forces and opposition fighters four years ago. It was almost completely destroyed in 2012. Mr Nseir is one of few who has seen the extent of the damage. “I visited the church just once. The sanctuary was completely destroyed, and there was just one wall left standing, with the cross still there above it,” he said.
The Protestant community in Aleppo worshipped in a three-room, fifth-floor apartment with no electricity or water for the next three years, until Christian and Muslim benefactors raised enough funds to build a new church. Aleppo’s mufti was among the first to pledge support.
“When you see such love, you can never believe that you will be defeated in this country,” Mr Nseir said. “As Jesus Christ had victory in the resurrection, I see with eyes of faith that victory over terrorism will come.” He urged the international community to question media reports about Syria, which were “very far away from the truth”.
The Christian community in Syria continues to suffer. “The situation for Christians here has been reduced to one of poor people, like all the Syrians,” the Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Joseph Tobji, said. “Europe seems like it is walking with closed eyes, putting an embargo in place that afflicts only the poor, because most of the rich here had money in dollars, and they were the first to leave.”
He compared life in Aleppo now to carrying a cross: massive inflation had increased prices to ten times what they were in 2011; the city had been without running water for more than two years; and there were still only intermittent electricity supplies. Bishop Tobji also described how a culture of fear had emerged since the conflict in Syria began. People of different faiths, who had lived harmoniously together for centuries, now felt unable to trust their neighbours.
Churches in Aleppo continue to provide humanitarian aid, including water, food, and medical care, to the city’s population, both Christian and Muslim. “We do our duty,” Bishop Tobji said. “We do what we can, for the love of God.”